Research Findings

Where did all of the coaches come from?


August 4, 2022

There is a “coach” for everything these days. There are dating coaches, health coaches, career coaches, and speaking coaches. There are coaches to help you find wellness, financial freedom, and the serenity of a decluttered closet. And, perhaps most audaciously, there are legions of self-described “life” coaches.

Where did all these new experts come from? And, given their general lack of credentials, why do people hire them?

You may wonder if this a multi-level marketing kind of arrangement – suspecting, correctly, that coaches are much less successful than they let on and are hoping to sell others on an entrepreneurship class (also correct). You may wonder if this is outright fraud, ideological snake-oil, or just the blind leading the blind. And you may also ask yourself, occasionally, does it work?

In a recently published article, I report results from a year I spent studying career coaches, in particular – observing their pitches and conducting in-depth interviews with both coaches and their clients. I find that none of these characterizations quite capture why and how “coaching” has grown to $3 billion industry in recent years.

I find that coaches have carved out a special space for themselves as “experts” in a world characterized by heightened uncertainties about work, marriage, health etc., widespread mistrust of traditional institutions, and a pervasive cultural imperative of constant self-improvement.

More specifically, I find that coaches and other “self-help experts” build up their credibility and gain clientele through three emotionally-laden relational techniques.

First, they pull potential clients into a moral universe that reframes their anxieties as a question of the sacred. Marie Kondo helps clients to see their spring cleaning as a process of self-discovery and communion with one’s belongings (in the tradition of Japanese animism). The career coaches I followed taught clients to think of work not merely as a way to make money, but as a means of self-actualization. This technique changes the stakes of the problem at hand and introduces different evaluative criteria for success, thus opening up the client’s problem (whether a messy closet or unemployment) to a coach’s intervention.

Second, coaches demonstrate their emotional closeness to the problem at hand, telling stories of how they, too, used to struggle in this area. “I, too, was once terrified of dating;” “I, too, felt trapped by my financial situation.” The career coaches I followed told potential clients tragic tales of their own layoffs and the terror they felt while staring into the existential void of unemployment. Through these strategic disclosures, coaches develop a critical, affective bond of trust with those they hope to sign-up as paying clients.

And third, coaches follow up these stories of struggle with tales of transformation. They tell emotionally rich narratives of how they (often with the help of their own coach!) personally faced down their fears, overcame their victimhood, and turned themselves into the enlightened beings they are today. Wellness coaches speak of calming an imbalanced life and mastering their souls. Financial gurus talk of finally reaching “financial freedom” after years in the red. My career coaches explained that they found their true calling (ironically, perhaps, in coaching others to find their callings) and when they did, everything else in their life – money, happiness, security etc. – “clicked” into place. Having been through the darkness that their clients are facing, and having climbed their way to transcendence, coaches position themselves as the perfect experts for showing you the way.

It does sound a bit like a fraud, doesn’t it? A theatrical performance meant to dupe the anxious into unloading their pockets. And in some ways, it is.

But the simple explanation of fraud doesn’t acknowledge what coaches actually do for clients. It papers over the importance of emotional support for those that feel lost in a chaotic world, unsure if they’ll make their next mortgage payment or if they will ever find a life partner. And in a culture obsessed with self-improvement, the stories of perseverance and success that coaches tell (even, I note, when clients don’t fully buy into their transformation tales) become irreplaceable sources of motivation and courage.

The rise of the coaching industry also provides a window into the politics of expertise today. When people grow suspicious of a range of traditional, credentialed experts – critiquing them as cold and out of touch – they are primed to gravitate towards alternative forms of authority. The unemployed professionals that I observed were ready to reject the idea of an alienated career path in a big bureaucratic firm (this option, after all, was failing them). They were eager to embrace different kinds of advice and gravitated towards the coaches who understood their angst and encouraged them to find their passions and chase their dreams.

In Max Weber’s famous typology of religious authorities, coaches are the “prophets,” the anti-institutional leaders that stay close to the laity and translate their interests into moving sermons. These prophets are poised to undermine and steal followers from the official “priests” who themselves are in danger of losing touch with the needs of the masses. Today, this is true for wellness gurus challenging doctors and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); of YouTube financial self-helpers challenging the normative retirement models; and perhaps even political entrepreneurs challenging the professional political class.

In these ways, coaches can help us to better understand the challenges of our political and cultural moment and, if we listen close enough, they may show us a way forward.

Read more

Patrick Sheehan. “The Paradox of Self-Help Expertise: How Unemployed Workers Become Professional Career Coaches” in American Journal of Sociology 2022.

Image: Thelifenotesbysg via [Wikimedia Commons] (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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